For a country that has been making wine for thousands of years, and which boasts more than 250 native grape varieties, Portugal remains uncharted territory for many wine drinkers. A shame as the wines can be excellent and offer flavours you don’t typically find elsewhere. The Douro, home of port is arguably the finest region, producing juicy violet-scented reds from a range of grapes including Touriga Nacional and Tinto Roriz (aka Tempranillo). Touriga Nacional appears just to the south in Dão, where the wines are a touch lighter and more fragrant. Neighbouring Bairrada is home to the Baga grape, which with its dense red fruit flavour and firm tannins has much in common with Italy’s Nebbiolo - it is excellent with suckling pig.
Vinho Verde comes from north of the Douro along the Atlantic coast,. It comes in white, red and rosé guises, but it’s the whites you’re most likely to encounter outside Portugal. Low in alcohol with a citrus bite and often a light sparkle, it’s at its best with the local seafood. An exception to this is the Vinho Verde made from Alvarinho (Spain’s Albariño), which is fleshier and fruitier - monkfish is a great partner. Southern Portugal has more of a New World feel to it, and you’ll find more familiar grape varieties mixed in with the local talent. Touriga Nacional is still planted, but you’ll also find grapes such as Castelão, with berry warmth and hints of tobacco, and Alicante Bouschet, a red-fleshed variety that adds intensity and colour to many blends. Finally port and Madeira aren’t Portugal’s only fortified wines of note - look out for the heady grapey Moscatel de Setúbal from a peninsula just south of Lisbon.
Ports split (roughly) into two camps – ruby and tawny. Both start in a similar way, with a wine being partially fermented and then spirit being added while there’s still some unfermented sugar left in the mix. Tawny ports then spend several years ageing in barrel, changing from deep purple to tawny brown, losing some youthful freshness but acquiring more complex dried fruit and nut flavours. As they’ve done all their maturing in barrel, they’re ready to drink on release, and opened bottles can be kept for several weeks. Try them lightly chilled in summer, both on their own and with puddings and cheeses. Ruby ports are bottled at an earlier stage, while there’s more of the fresh fruit and spirity kick. Vintage port is the summit of the ruby port ladder, but thanks to its richness and structure, it can take 20 years or more to reach its peak. Late-bottled-vintage offers something close to the vintage port experience, but is a fraction of the price and can be drunk at a far earlier stage. Unlike tawnies, ruby ports are at their best in the few days after the bottles have been opened
Madeira comes from a group of islands off the coast of North Africa. In the 17th century, the producers discovered that barrels of the wine that had undergone lengthy sea voyages to hot climes acquired a particular flavour that proved popular with many customers. The producers then began to duplicate the effect of this maturation in their cellars. The top wines are classified according to the grape from which they’re made. In ascending order of sweetness, these are Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey. The best combine intensity of nutty fig and raisin flavours with a tangy freshness. They’re among the most long-lasting wines in the world, with bottles over 100 years old still tasting fresh and lively.